Science This Week: The Newborn Universe, Cosmos #1, & ID in the News

Baby Pictures of the Universe baby2

They thought it was pigeon poop – but what it really was earned them the Nobel Prize in Physics. In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were experimenting with a super-sensitive antenna, trying to detect radio waves bounced off a satellite. But mysterious background noise (static) was interfering. Penzias and Wilson discovered pigeons roosting in their high-power antenna – and thinking that was the source of the interference – they set about removing the birds and scrubbing away all of the poop. Yet, the background noise remained. Eventually Penzias and Wilson realized they had just observed the earliest known baby picture of the universe. The faint glow of cosmic background radiation they discovered dates back to just 380,000 years after the big bang. Before that time, the just-born universe was too hot to even allow light to travel. Cosmic background radiation is the light that began to glow when the universe cooled – 380,000 years after the big bang.

static_tv_021709If you have an old TV around, the kind with a rabbit-ear antenna – you own a time machine. Tune the TV between channels and one percent (1%) of the static you see is cosmic background radiation left over from the big bang. How cool is that?

This week, an international team of physicists announced the discovery of an even earlier universal selfie – a newborn photo. It has long been a mystery as to why the universe is uniform from pole to pole and not a jagged warped mess as you might expect from an explosion like the big bang. It was hypothesized that following the initial “bang”, the universe ballooned out and swelled inconceivably fast – faster even than the speed of light – and this rapid expansion (called inflation) ironed out all the wrinkles and irregularities. If inflation had indeed occurred, we would expect to find ripples of gravitational waves in the radiation as the universe was wrenched ferociously apart. Long-term observations of the cosmic background radiation found just that. The team of researchers announced this week that the light from the cosmic background radiation is distorted, rippled, and polarized in a pattern that fits the gravitational waves left over from inflation. What this means: we now have a “picture” of the universe, just one-trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the big bang. Wow.

Cosmos, Episode 2: Some of the Things Molecules Do

The second installment of the new Cosmos series with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson ventured into the universe of molecules inside of us. This episode focused on the beauty and diversity of life resulting from eons of natural selection. Dr. Tyson noted right away that many people are very uncomfortable at the thought of sharing an ancestor with the apes. Amen to that. Moms, wanting their prodigious science-loving offspring to understand that science and faith are not in conflict, have often asked me to explain to their kids why dinosaurs and humans didn’t coexist. Mom beams with pride as offspring comprehends the evidence of an ancient earth and evolution of animals, but breaks out in a blotchy sweat when her junior scientist asks the inevitable “so did we come from monkeys?”

Dr. Tyson brought us on a journey through the “tree of life”, demonstrating that in reality humans are related to all of life, even plants. Just like DNA testing can tell us about paternity and who is related to whom, DNA can demonstrate relatedness between all living things. The closer the relative, the more DNA in common. I found it fascinating that on a section of DNA carried by both oak trees and humans – in the same spot for both – we find genes coding for the breakdown of sugar. Digesting sugar is so loan-oak-treebasic to life that the ability to do so evolved before all the myriad forms of life split off from each other. I loved this observation by Dr. Tyson:

The stuff of life is so malleable, that once it got started, the environment molded it into a staggering variety of forms.

An exceptional animated graphic tracing the evolution of the eye illustrated how living things are molded in response to their environment. (here’s a link to episode 2 – the segment on the evolution of the eye begins at 21:37) Dr. Tyson addressed the claim that evolution is “just” a theory, as if it was someone’s opinion. Evolution is a theory… like gravity is a theory. Evolution really happened – it’s in our DNA.

Note: Francis Collins is the author of one of my top-ten of all time books, The Language of God. Dr. Collins headed the ground-breaking Human Genome Project, is currently the director of the National Institutes of Health and is a vocal and committed Christian. According to Francis Collins, DNA is the “language by which God spoke life into being”. Beautiful.

Intelligent Design in the News

Advocates of Intelligent Design have long insisted that ID was a science-based explanation of the diversity of life. God is never mentioned in ID materials, only an “intelligent designer”. Despite these claims, in the high-profile 2005 Dover case a U.S. district judge ruled that ID was indeed religious in intent, replacing “God” terminology with “design”. Stephen Meyer, a respected leader in the ID movement recently reiterated the “non-religious” claim:

Contrary to media reports, Intelligent Design is not a religious-based idea, but instead an evidence-based scientific theory about life’s origins—one that challenges strictly materialistic views of evolution.

However, a conference held last weekend at Faith Bible Church in the Woodlands (north of Houston) may represent a shift in the ID model. The conference featured three stars of the ID movement: William Dembski, John West, and the author of the preceding quote, Stephen Meyer. The website for the conference presents a straightforward choice: science either undermines essential Christian doctrines or points to intelligent design.  Does this move to explicitly link leaders of the ID movement and Intelligent Design itself to Christian “essentials” represent a paradigm shift? If so, the multiple movements in several states to teach ID alongside evolution might get a bit more interesting.

************************

I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.

I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.

I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

2010-08-30-2010-8-30-Science-Cat

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